What is our future vision for New Zealand agriculture?
There has been a passionate debate among many New Zealanders about the health of our environment and the planet over the past few months and this unprecedented level of engagement and interest in this critical issue should be welcomed.
However, as the country faces a raft of proposed new policies and regulations for freshwater and climate change, we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves a fundamental question – what does success look like?
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I talk to a lot of New Zealanders, both farmers and those living in our towns and cities. What consistently comes through is that Kiwis want rich and resilient biodiversity, healthy soils and water so we can feed and support future generations, thriving rural communities and our iconic landscapes protected so they can continue to be a drawcard for international visitors.
Underpinning all of this is that New Zealanders want farmers to own their environmental issues and take action to solve them.
There is a huge amount of good stuff in the government's proposed essential freshwater proposals that we support.
We support the objective of having healthy freshwater. We support clear, science based environmental bottom lines that protect human and ecological health and frameworks that empower farmers and communities to work together to achieve these. We support the need for our sector to address our issues such as sediment, e-coli and winter grazing.
We have, however, fundamental concerns about the fairness of some of what is being proposed.
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In particular, the current proposals as they are written will effectively reward the highest nitrogen leaching emitters and penalise farming systems with the lightest environmental touch.
This is through a range of "grandparenting" provisions that provide an entitlement for farmers to continue to emit in the future at a level determined solely by past emissions, regardless of their impact on the environment.
Sheep and beef farmers generally have very low nitrogen leaching rates. Under the current proposals, those farms will be held at those very low levels, whilst those at much higher levels can continue to do what they are doing. This is not fair.
Our fundamental principle is that each farmer should be expected to do their bit in proportion to their impacts.
Our vision for the future of New Zealand agriculture is for diverse and mixed farming systems, with the land-use matched to that land's capability and the integration of cropping, native trees, pine trees on farms where that makes sense. The current proposals would work against that vision of success.
Many of our farmers are investigating the introduction of high end crops on their flat land and potentially reducing their stock numbers to meet potential future climate change requirements. That would not be possible through the restrictions on land-use change.
Many of our farmers are looking to retire, or introduce plans to manage, the erosion-prone parts of their farms to deal with sediment. To do that, they will need to change their systems slightly to pay for those costs. However, the way the essential freshwater proposals have been constructed won't allow our farmers to adjust their systems to pay for that.
Modelling by Local Government New Zealand on the potential impact of the essential freshwater proposals estimates a 68 per cent reduction in land under sheep and beef farms in the Waikato-Waipa catchment.
Our low emitting farmers, who are doing the right thing, won't have any ability to increase
their profitability to meet the increased costs in other areas that they will need to.
The modelling projects this land will be converted into plantation forestry. Let me make it clear there is absolutely a place for forestry and I fully support the integration of trees on farms, particularly native trees. It's the scale and speed of change that I am concerned about.
The Government insist those who have done the right thing won't be affected. But the reality is these proposals will have the complete opposite effect, and will penalise those who are already operating within the limits of their land.
The sheep and beef sector has reduced its absolute carbon emissions by 30 per cent since 1990. There's 1.4 million hectares of largely regenerated native bush on sheep and beef farms and a further 1 million hectares of native vegetation – an area double the size of the Hawke's Bay.
We know we still have things to improve on and are up for that challenge.
It's vital, however, that we get these settings right. Let's hold in our minds what success looks like - healthy water and mixed, resilient farming systems - and ensure the frameworks we set up today don't actually undermine that vision.
• Sam McIvor is the chief executive of Beef + Lamb New Zealand